The fight to save London from climate emergency

·6-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

It was like a scene from a low-budget disaster film. In just one hour, enough rain fell to create a lake in the streets of Mayfair, while people across London were warned of power cuts, disruption to travel and damage to homes.

The latest flash flooding to hit the capital was last week with fears of more to come. Residents in east London are still picking up the pieces after floods in July wrecked houses and hit businesses. Pudding Mill Station was submerged, Hackney Wick resembled Venice.

This was a wake-up call, making it clear that climate change is no longer confined to scientific models and dystopian literature — it is happening now, in our city. Indeed, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, last July was the warmest since records began 142 years ago.

But what of London, the capital of a nation that has historically taken mild weather to extremes? A Goldilocks climate — rarely boiling hot or freezing cold, neither too wet nor too dry, a people that have long flourished in a dull, shadowless land that the author Bill Bryson once compared with “living inside Tupperware”? The answer is, of course, it is happening here too.

“The Thames Barrier was designed for a sea level that doesn’t exist anymore,” warns Harriet Bulkeley, Professor at Durham University who focuses on the impact of climate change on cities. The barrier, situated two miles east of Canary Wharf, has protected London from high tides and storm surges since 1982.

While the number of closures can vary due to long-term tidal cycles, it has been used far more frequently in recent decades — and though the barrier protects against river floods, it cannot protect the capital from what falls straight from the sky.

In some ways, July’s downpours were unremarkable. Parts of London are well-known flood risks, where planning permission is frequently only granted on the basis that ground-level flats are elevated. But as rainfall becomes heavier and more unpredictable, some areas are increasingly vulnerable.

Climate change means we are exposed to rainfall from fiercer storms. The reason is meteorologically straightforward — warmer air can hold more water.

Extreme heat is becoming a problem too. The sun is so ingrained in the British psyche, largely because we are starved of it, but the consequence of this is that we are ill-prepared for persistently warm weather.

The issue is particularly acute in London, as cities produce what is known as a heat island effect — essentially, urban areas experience significantly higher temperatures than surrounding rural areas, as buildings, roads and other infrastructure retain heat.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero remains critical if we are to limit the worst excesses of climate change. Yet even if we were to cease releasing carbon into the atmosphere tomorrow, London would still have to get ready for a changed climate.

So we must do more than hit our CO2 targets, we need to adapt — that is, adjust our ecological, social and economic systems. What can we do? “We will need to invest billions of pounds in new and upgraded infrastructure,” says Michael Neuman, Professor of Sustainable Urbanism at the University of Westminster.

Take flooding. “Our drainage system was built in the Victorian era and can’t cope,” says Bob Ward, deputy chair of the London Climate Change Partnership. The capital’s new super sewer — a 25km tunnel designed to “intercept, store and ultimately transfer sewage waste away from the River Thames”, which is currently being built — will help get the water out.

But it is getting it into the network in the first place that is the problem. The more intense rainfall we are seeing is exacerbated by the sheer number of impermeable surfaces that characterise any city. A downpour in a field is one thing; the same amount of rain that hits concrete or tarmac simply has nowhere to go.

And so while big infrastructure projects like the super sewer are vital, Professor Bulkeley also points to local nature-based solutions, from green roofs to planting trees along streets, that could create a “sponge city”.

Such green amenities also benefit from broad support — after all, few people will argue against more trees in their neighbourhood. Infrastructure schemes in a city like London are expensive, and rarely feel urgent until the day after a cataclysmic event hits. The capital is by no means a laggard by international standards, but our efforts suffer from a lack of joined-up action.

At present, we are simply not doing enough. Adaptation should be embedded in the heart of government, local and national, from planning to energy, housing and health policy. A recent report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) concluded that the UK was not keeping up with increasing risk and was in fact “less prepared for the changing climate now” than it was five years ago.

This plays out in that second major threat from climate change: extreme heat events. Vast swathes of London’s housing stock are ill-suited for high temperatures. Data from Public Health England suggests that the excess mortality rate caused by last year’s summer heat waves totalled more than 2,500.

The South-East saw the most excess deaths, followed by London. The CCC has called for new developments to be planned with warmer weather in mind, using more appropriate materials, smarter designs and ventilation to naturally cool buildings without the need for expensive and energy-sapping air conditioning.

Mayor Sadiq Khan has warned that if present trends continue, the Tube could become unbearably hot for more than a month each year. On which note, Transport for London has long had to navigate the quirks of the city’s weather.

As well as cutting its own emissions, the organisation is at the vanguard of climate adaptation. Lilli Matson, TfL’s chief safety, health and environment officer, says it already works closely with the Environment Agency, Thames Water and the Met Office to understand how the greater frequency of extreme weather events will impact the network.

Nonetheless, whether it’s extreme weather events or the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the message is cutting through. According to an Ipsos MORI poll in August, 78 per cent of Londoners believe we are already feeling the effects of climate change. But there remains a gulf between the effort required and action taken, and London is not immune from the global consequences.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees notes that, in the last 10 years alone, weather-related events forced an average of 21.5 million displacements each year — more than double the number caused by conflict and violence. And in a report last year, the Institute for Economics and Peace, a think tank, predicted that 1.2 billion people could become climate refugees by 2050.

What will our city’s stance be towards the impending deluge of climate refugees? And if global carbon emissions do not fall in time, will Londoners form part of that group?

One thing is certain. What our future looks like depends on the steps we take now, not only to curb our emissions, but to prepare for our hotter, rainier future.

To read more and find out what action the Mayor is taking on climate change, go to

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